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The Folger Spotlight

Audio Recordings Pt. III - 'Tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings

Hello again! Kate here.

Yes, that one.

Yes, that one.

I promised last time to talk about some of the challenges in creating audio recordings of Shakespeare. Some of the most memorable images in Shakespeare are visual – the Macbeths with bright eyes and bloody hands, Hamlet holding Yorick’s head, Bottom’s ears, Juliet’s balcony… these images are so famous that they can be presented almost without context and people will recognize them. Tourists examining the bas-reliefs outside of the Folger Library will sometimes start speaking lines from the plays, just by seeing the pictures.

But soft, what light from yonder cauldron breaks? No, that’s not right. Hmmm.

But soft, what light from yonder cauldron breaks? No, that’s not right. Hmm…

But what happens when all of that is taken away and only the words are left? Shakespeare’s audiences would have experienced play-going differently than we do, but we have his language in common. Well, mostly. There are those who argue that the basic  pronunciation of words would have been completely different from the way we experience them now.

What fire is in mine ears?! (Sorry, “fyre”)

We could talk for a lifetime (many have and others must) about the variations in Shakespeare’s text, but let us set that aside. The purpose of this project, both at the first and now, was and is to perform the Folger Shakespeare Library text. Because the performances are audio recordings, the Chorus’ plea from Henry V to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” is more important than ever. Our audience will have to see with their ears and Bottom’s claim that, “I can hear my Thisbe’s face” turns out to be quite accurate.

How do we make a scene scary when we can’t see anything? Macbeth is a terrifying play, full of witches and ghosts and blood, none of which you can see in an audio recording.



In order to make this work, we have to have a kind of radical trust in Shakespeare and his characters. We have to trust that they will tell us what we need to know and we must believe them when they speak. On an audio recording, when Macbeth says that he sees a dagger, he sees it. There are no animated daggers and no mirror tricks (awesome as they may be), just a terrified man telling you that what he sees cannot be, and yet it is.

We also have to trust our actors, and believe that – without the aid of designers to clothe and light them, stage managers to be all things to all men, and the army of people here at the Folger who make each production happen – they can tell the story with only their voices.

In an audio recording, we spend the play in the position of the Macbeths’ dinner guests – we cannot see the ghost come from the grave, or the forest marching up the hill but we believe that they are there.

In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo claims that philosophy cannot “make a Juliet, displant a town, [or] reverse a prince’s doom“, but theater can do all those things.  Every actress who plays Juliet makes that character anew. Every time the Henry V Chorus asks us to “suppose within the girdle of these walls are now confined two mighty monarchies”, we move mountains in our minds. Reversing the prince’s doom…well, we’ll keep working on that one.

Speaking of that ill-starred pair, our audio recording of Romeo and Juliet will be available for sale in the gift shop starting next Tuesday at the first performance of that play.


Performances start October 15th

You can buy tickets to the play here, and if you subscribe to our full season (which you can do hereRichard III and The Two Gentlemen of Verona are coming soon!) you will also get a free copy of the Folger edition of the play and the opportunity to purchase the recording on three CDs for $5 (usually $17.99).

Our biggest challenge in creating these audio recordings is gaining your trust. We have all worked hard to make them the best they can be, but ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings. And queens, and witches. Oh, and a few fairies. And a man-donkey. I think there are a few ghosts floating around too…

Friends, into your hands we commit our sounds. ‘Till the next!